They came, they saw, they scatted … er, musically speaking. And with the final notes of Poncho Sanchez and Ray Vega drifting into the night air on Sunday, the curtain closed on the 30th annual Burlington Discover Jazz Festival.
Traditionally, this would be the part of my annual recap column where I run through the long list of festival highlights — and maybe lowlights — from the 10 days that were. But I approached jazz fest a little differently this year. I took a more leisurely route to jazz enlightenment, picking my spots instead of going all out and trying to get to as many shows as I could. Frankly, favoring quality over quantity was refreshing. And it allowed me to appreciate the shows I caught from a more relaxed perspective, which is really the best way to absorb music. To that end, there were two performances in particular that stood out to these ears and, I think, captured the heart of the festival. Or at least captured my heart. (Aww…)
In last week’s missive , I rolled out a long-standing column gimmick in which I gaze into the future and review a show I haven’t yet seen, in this case Saturn People’s Sound Collective  at the FlynnSpace. I don’t use that trick often, and even then only when I’m reasonably sure I won’t be made to look like an idiot the following week. I’m pleased to report SPSC held up their end of the bargain. Mostly.
In that column, I opined that the band would not merely be a local highlight but a “festival topper, period.” In hindsight, that prediction was a little overeager. The 20-person arkestra was indeed a highlight, though whether they really stood on par with some of the other festival greats is surely debatable. What isn’t debatable is that Brian Boyes’ outfit is a deeply imaginative and profoundly gifted group who are already a must-see local act even after only a handful of public performances.
As a bandleader, Boyes is an energetic and commanding presence, using his full body to coax every last ounce of emotion from his players. With his mussed mop of hair and sharp jacket, he kind of reminded me of a young Michael Chorney, a similarly adventurous local composer whose influence on Boyes is obvious and likely stems from their time together in another spacey big band, viperHouse.
Like Chorney, Boyes has a brilliant ear for melody, couching delicate phrases within deceptively complex arrangements. This is music that stimulates both the mind and soul, but not nearly as aggressively as, say, Steve Reich, another influence. Boyes’ compositions are surprisingly accessible and listenable despite his many-tentacled approach, which is a credit to his skill. Like another local music scribe I spoke to in the crowd that night, I was prepared for something more challenging, a little weirder. I was pleasantly surprised to find Boyes striking an agreeable balance.
My only quibble is that the FlynnSpace itself might not be the best venue for a band with so many acoustic variables: brass, reed instruments, strings, vocals, electric guitar, percussion, etc. At times, I got the impression that band members were having a hard time hearing each other, which led to some disjointed moments, especially certain attacks that hit with less than the required force. Still, minor sound issues aside, it was tremendous performance.
And then there was Gretchen. Sweet, sweet Gretchen.
I have a confession. Even after delving deep into Gretchen Parlato ’s career and music, after reading virtually everything that’s been written about her, and even after speaking with her and writing a cover story singing her praises, I still found the notion that “Gretchen Parlato’s voice is an instrument” to be a cute bit of music-crit hyperbole. Hell, I even interviewed the guy who was among the first critics to use those words to describe her, Steve Greenlee.
I was wrong. Steve was right.
Parlato’s late set at the FlynnSpace last Saturday was among the finest performances I’ve seen. Not just in jazz. I mean period. And, yes, her voice is absolutely an instrument. And a divine one at that.
I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone do the things with a human voice that Gretchen Parlato can do. And it’s not that she can sound like a trumpet or a saxophone or a cello — though I’ll concede those comparisons are reasonable. It’s the emotion she evokes, often wordlessly, though not necessarily by scatting. It’s the heartbreaking hitch in a quiet, mournful wail. It’s the precision with which she effortlessly glides through arpeggios as if her throat has valves. It’s the softness in her tone that, even from 50 feet away, makes it seem like she’s whispering in your ear.
Parlato’s set was short, barely an hour by my watch. But I’d wager she gave the audience more chills during those 60 minutes than were felt during the rest of the festival combined. In the moment, I was surprised the crowd didn’t rally more heartily for an encore. Even by stiff jazz-fest-audience standards it seemed a subdued effort, and Parlato didn’t return. In hindsight, I suspect what was really happening was that we were all still mystified by what we had just seen. Which was, simply put, greatness.
If there is one thing this column loves, it’s a good gimmick. And the upcoming VALOR fundraiser for the Girls Rock VT  at Nectar’s on Saturday, June 15, is not merely a good gimmick, it’s a great one. VALOR stands for Vermont Arm-Wrestling Ladies of Rock. Really. The fundraiser is a double-elimination arm-wrestling tournament pitting eight local female rockers against each other, “Over the Top” style. As of press time, the contestants have yet to be announced, which means I can’t handicap the tourney for you. However, if you go and want to get some friendly wagering in — the profits of which you will of course donate to Girls Rock VT, right? — always bet on the drummer where feats of strength are concerned, particularly those that involve arm muscles. For more info, check out girlsrockvermont.org . And stick around after the wrasslin’ for a set from local sci-fi rockers Wave of the Future .
You know how Hollywood is totally out of new ideas, so they just remake old movies instead? Is it possible that a similar phenomenon is happening to the local music scene? I’m kidding, sort of. But that explanation came to mind regarding the recent trend of local musicians recreating iconic albums in concert. And, yeah, it’s a full-blown trend. To wit, every Full Moon Masquerade since the party moved to Signal Kitchen has featured an all-star band redoing hip-hop albums. Then there’s Select Sessions, also at SK, in which Rich Price and Co. dig into rock’s closet. Their next show is this Thursday, June 13, with Van Morrison’s Moondance on tap. And that’s not the only album reboot on the docket this week. Lounge Act, an all-star band featuring Jason Cooley (Blue Button), James Bellizia (PoolooP), Caroline O’Connor (Vedora), Eric Olsen (Swale) and Bobby Hackney (Rough Francis), will be dusting off Doolittle by the Pixies this Saturday, June 15, at Nectar’s. They were last seen covering Nevermind by Nirvana last summer, which was, quite honestly, one of the most fun shows I saw in 2012. And, yes, I just admitted to having fun at a covers show.
Congrats to the DuPont Brothers , who were voted onto the bill at this year’s Grand Point North festival by Seven Days readers. The DuPonts narrowly edged out Burlington’s Al Moore Blues Band  for the right to join Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and all their rock-star pals at Waterfront Park on September 14 and 15. Well done, dudes.
Last but not least, if you want a look at one of the bands that influenced local mashup auteur DJ Disco Phantom, head over to Signal Kitchen this Wednesday, June 12, and check out !!! . Pronounced “chk-chk-chk,” the dance-punk band was one of DJDP’s most formative influences and, he says, a big reason why he got into DJing and dance music in general. And that’s been a pretty good thing for us, I’d say. He adds that this show is the single most exciting he’s been to see or performed at in his three-year association with MSR Presents and Angioplasty Media, which is really saying something.
A peek at what was on my iPod, turntable, eight-track player, etc., this week.
The Dodos, Carrier
Night Beds, Country Sleep
Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest
Queens of the Stone Age, Like Clockwork
Camera Obscura, Desire Lines